North Lake Shore Drive is due for a revamp. How public transit is prioritized is an open question. Credit: John Greenfield

Earlier this month at a hearing on the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction study—dubbed “Redefine the Drive”—officials assured the public that all options for rebuilding Chicago’s coastal highway are still on the table. But the Illinois Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the drive, isn’t seriously considering the simplest way to help more people travel more efficiently: trading existing mixed-traffic lanes for bus-only lanes.

Immortalized in the eponymous song by local rock group Aliotta-Haynes-Jeremiah (R.I.P. bassist Mitch Aliotta, who passed away in July), the northern portion of Lake Shore Drive is 60 to 80 years old, and way overdue for a rehab. IDOT and the Chicago Department of Transportation are collaborating on the plan to rebuild the seven-mile section between Grand and Hollywood.

They expect to get approval for the design from the feds by 2018, with construction starting as early as 2019, pending available funding. The project could cost more than $1 billion and will take years to finish.

Starting in July 2013, the city and state transportation departments hosted a series of community meetings, where residents shared their ideas for the overhaul. In October 2014, the planners released a list of the 20 most popular ideas for the rehab, based on more than 1,600 comments from 330-plus attendees. “Improve transit service” came in second, after “Separate bike/pedestrian users on the Lakefront Trail.” Maintaining or improving driving conditions didn’t make the list.

During the recent hearing at the Chicago History Museum, planners from IDOT noted that North Lake Shore Drive sees 70,000 transit trips a day on nine routes, accounting for one-fifth of all passenger trips on the drive.

IDOT projects that the population of the study area, bounded by Touhy, the Kennedy/Dan Ryan, and the Stevenson, will grow 15 to 20 percent by 2040, based on a state analysis of Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning data. The department predicts the number of transit trips on the drive will increase by the same amount during this period. However, they project the increase in car trips will be negligible, because new Chicagoans will mostly commute by transit, and some current residents will switch from cars to other modes.

A vision of North Lake Shore Drive with rapid transit corridors and separated walking and biking paths published by 15 local civic organizations in July 2013.
A vision of North Lake Shore Drive with rapid transit corridors and separated walking and biking paths published by 15 local civic organizations in July 2013.Credit: Thom Greene

To meet the growing demand for transit, the LSD project team is considering options for the drive like bus-on-shoulder (which already exists on some Pace lines) and bus-only lanes, possibly with rapid transit-style stations along the route. Light rail is even in the mix, although it would likely be cost-prohibitive.

Liberating transit riders from car-generated congestion via dedicated lanes is a no-brainer, since buses are exponentially more space-efficient than automobiles. The planners said cars on the drive carry an average of 1.2 people. Meanwhile, a 60-foot articulated CTA bus seats about 50 people (not counting standees) and takes up less room on the highway than two average-size cars, when you factor in the necessary distances between vehicles.

During the hearing, planners stressed they haven’t yet ruled out any options for reconfiguring the drive. But afterward, IDOT project and environmental studies section chief John Baczek told a different story to Charles Papanek, who reported on the meeting for Streetsblog .

Baczek said it’s unlikely any of the drive’s existing travel lanes will be converted to transit-only use, because this would reduce capacity for drivers, and the number of car trips isn’t expected to decrease. Therefore, he implied, adding dedicated bus lanes would probably require widening the highway.

A few problems with this logic spring to mind. If taking right-of-way from cars and giving it to transit makes driving a little slower and buses a lot faster, people who don’t need to drive will be encouraged to switch modes. That means fewer autos on the road, less emissions, and more people getting where they need to go faster via high-speed buses.

Conversely, widening the eight-lane roadway by another 15 or 30 feet would create an even bigger barrier between the neighborhoods and the lake, and possibly gobble up precious parkland.

To get more perspective on Baczek’s statements, I contacted other local authorities and advocates for their views on the lane conversion issue.

IDOT spokeswoman Gianna Urgo wouldn’t confirm or deny that replacing mixed-traffic lanes with bus-only lanes is probably a non-starter for the department. “The needs of all users are being considered within the physical constraints of the study area to develop a transportation solution that balances the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, transit [riders], and [drivers],” she stated.

“A smart, comprehensive strategy can accommodate all travelers with fewer cars within the existing footprint… Focus on moving people, not cars.”

—Active Trans director Ron Burke­

Asked for his department’s position on lane conversions, CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey replied, “The study team [including CDOT] is in the process of carefully assessing the impacts of various alternatives on both Lake Shore Drive and surrounding streets.”

Representatives for Gold Coast alderman Brian Hopkins, Lakeview alderman Tom Tunney, and north-side congressman Mike Quigley (who sits on a House subcommittee that makes decisions on transportation funding) said all three politicians are open to the possibility of adding transit-only lanes to the highway. A Tunney staffer said the alderman needs to see a proposal backed by feasibility and traffic impact studies before taking a position on either converting lanes or widening the road.

Hopkins stated he wouldn’t support expanding the drive if it reduced parkland. But he noted that local architecture firm VOA Associates has proposed widening the lakefront between Navy Pier and North Avenue via infill, which would create an estimated 60 acres of new green space.

Metropolitan Planning Council vice president Peter Skosey said that since IDOT’s projections say transit use will rise while driving will plateau, it makes sense to dedicate lanes to buses. “It’s preferable to take advantage of existing infrastructure before adding more lanes,” he said, adding that bus corridors could be upgraded to light rail in the future.

Active Trans director Ron Burke argued it’s unnecessary to preserve all of the existing mixed-traffic lanes, because fast, reliable buses will encourage many more people to ride. While IDOT assumes that driving won’t decrease, Burke says retaining all travel lanes would make that a self-fulfilling prophesy.

“A smart, comprehensive strategy can accommodate all travelers with fewer cars within the existing footprint by converting single-occupant car trips to transit, biking and car pools,” Burke added. “Focus on moving people, not cars.”

If full lane conversions do turn out to be a deal breaker, moveable lanes would be an easy way to speed rush-hour buses on the drive with little inconvenience for drivers. During the morning commute, one of the eight existing lanes could be reserved for inbound buses, with four maintained for southbound motorists, while the much-lighter reverse-commute traffic would share three northbound lanes. The layout would be reversed for the evening rush.a

IDOT has rarely been ahead of the curve when it comes to transportation planning. Case-in-point is the department’s ban on protected bike lanes on state roads during the Quinn administration. However, new IDOT secretary Randy Blankenhorn is the former head of the progressive Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, so there’s hope the department can be persuaded to rethink lane conversions on the drive-if there’s enough public outcry in support of the idea. v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.